Outfitters and guides will welcome hundreds of hunters this weekend in advance of the state’s bear hunting season, which officially kicks off Monday.
Most of those hunters will sit in stands that overlook a bait station, hoping for a big bruin to show up.
And Randy Cross a Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife biologist who serves as the field crew leader of the state’s ongoing bear research study, says early hunters could enjoy some good hunting.
“The reports I’m getting from the guides are really positive,” Cross said. “I’m getting good reports from northern Maine, eastern Maine and central Maine. So that’s a pretty good indication that it’s going to start [with a] really active bait season.”
According to Cross, guides are basing their reports on what they’re seeing in the woods, and how actively bears are feeding at bait sites that have been maintained for the past month.
After a dry summer, Cross was curious to see how the ears would act. When bears have abundant natural foods, they can be more reluctant to visit baits that they associate with human contact. And when those natural food sources are scarce, bears are more apt to amble into a bait site and sample the chow.
“Typically, the drier years are better bait-season years because generally speaking, it’s detrimental to the natural food resources for the bears,” Cross said. “This year has turned dry. Everything was looking pretty good a month and a half ago and it’s kind of gone downhill.”
Hunters can hunt over bait from Monday until Sept. 25, and guides and individual hunters have been baiting all month in preparation for the season.
Bears can also be hunted with dogs from Sept. 13 until Oct. 29. The overall open hunting season on bears (including a season that runs during the traditional firearms season on deer) runs from Monday until Nov. 27.
Bears can also be trapped in Maine during an annual season that lasts from Sept. 1 until Oct. 31.
The state conservatively estimates its bear herd at 23,000, and each year about 3,000 are killed by hunters.
Of those, the vast majority — 84 percent last year, according to Cross — are shot over bait.
Though bait hunting is distasteful to some, and while all of the state’s bear-hunting methods were targeted by a statewide referendum back in 2004, Cross said hunting is essential if biologists are to achieve management goals.
“We have a lot of bears in Maine. We’re managing the population to maintain it at a level that’s acceptable to the public,” Cross said. “It’s not being managed based on [achieving] the [highest] number of bears that you could possibly maintain in the state, because that number could be quite a lot higher [than it is now] and not acceptable to the public in terms of the level of nuisance that results from that level of population.”
Cross said in order to maintain a stable population level, about 3,000 bears must be removed from the herd each year.
“The most successful tool for removing 3,000 bears is bait, in the state of Maine,” said Cross, who pointed out that even when hunters use bait, their success rate is only about 30 percent.
Cross said that as bear season opens, the bruins will continue to forage until their efforts fail to generate the needed fat stores they’ll live off during the winter. At that point, they’ll head to their dens.
He said that berries and nuts that typically provide late summer and early fall sustenance may not be readily available this year, due in part to the dry weather.
“A lot of the berries you’d normally think of as peaking during the first week or two of bait season have already peaked,” Cross said. “The sarsaparilla Down East seems to have gone past its peak … the blackberries seem to be on the downswing, too. Those two, along with blueberries, usually hang in there into the bait season.”
If that’s the case across the state, hunters may find that bears are more apt to show up in front of their stands.
“The number of bears that’s out there doesn’t fluctuate dramatically from year to year,” Cross said. “But the bait response can, and does, some years. Some years the bears just come out of the woodwork and other years it’s as if they’re not even there, just because they have other options.”